Lord, Karen. Galaxy Game

Karen Lord, Galaxy Game (2015). A sequel to The Best of All Possible Worlds. Features a world, Punartam, where resources are allocated by the interplay of two formal media, called "social credit" and "financial credit." There is a kind of mapping between divisions such as market and gift economy, or between money and social capital, onto the division between basic needs and wants/luxuries -- all suitably science fictionally estranged and disheveled, of course. Here are the relevant snippets:
Haviranthiya told him very soberly that it appeared Academe Maenevastraya had registered a prior claim on his acquaintance and he could no longer provide Rafi with an Academe Surinastraya recommendation as a starting nexus for future Punartam interactions.
   "And your essentials," Ntenman continued.
   "There's nothing wrong with them. You should approve of that."
   Essentials were harder to understand, but after Lian dumped a message and a quantity of voice-access credit into his channel, things became clearer. The credit was "a loan, not a gift", and the fact that Lian had extended it made Lian one of his primary essentials. "Stay neutral," Lian's message warned. "Do not accept credit from non-Cygnians."
   "Your keys are your peers," Lian's message explained further. "I've introduced you to a couple of mine and I'll introduce you to more in time. I know your family and I shared food and drink with you in public, so I'm one of your first-tier keys. Keys you meet through me will be your second-tier keys. You will have to acquire more keys by your own efforts."
   He quickly discovered that for every variant of the credit system, there were several academic interpretations and models on how they should work. "Economic credit is mere financial engineering," sneered his Academe guide. "Social credit is art."
   "Yes, that's survival. But social credit determines what you will eat, and where, and with whom."
   "And I get my financial credit from my essentials but social credit from my keys."
   "More or less. That depends on where your nexus is located and the allegiance of your keys. Sometimes it's worthwhile to have a broad representation, but sometimes a nexus will refuse to acknowledge certain keys or networks, or will itself be shunned by other networks." Ntenman exhaled sharply, already frustrated. "It's a complex formula. The size, density and degree of overlap of your networks is measured, your net worth is calculated with reference to recommendations from your keys, and only a fully qualified Credit Assessor can work out the result."
   "But good social credit makes my financial credit more valuable, is that right?"
   "More or less. You're in a higher consumer bracket for some things."
   "So this is good! I have a nexus and I'm making a start on my social credit. I'll be able to pay you back."
   "Don't be rude," said Ntenman, only half-joking, and Rafi belatedly remembered that on Punartam, it was bad manners for anyone, be they creditor, debtor or completely uninvolved, to harp on an unpaid debt.    "So, financial credit is what gets me food and shelter?" Rafi asked. He had discovered that teaching him the basics appeared to put Ntenman in a better mood, as if doing so re-established the correct order of things.
For other exotic trust currencies, see entries for Cory Doctorow, Iain M. Banks, Michael Swanwick, and Jack Vance.


Maughan, Tim. 'Limited Edition'

Tim Maughan, "Limited Edition" (2012). Features the gamification of robbery. You log onto Smash/Grab, a sort of gambling / gaming / social media thing, and get points for smashing stuff and nicking stuff In Real Life. In other words, what counts as a breakdown of the legitimate circulation of values within one sphere is a completely legitimate phase in the circulation of values within another sphere. There's a faint suggestion that somewhere in the shadows these spheres are reconciled: perhaps powerful corporate interests don't exactly run the Smash/Grab servers, but they may be in no hurry to see them shut down. Story online at Arcfinity.


Maughan, Tim. 'Special Economic Zone'

Tim Maughan, "Special Economic Zone" (2015). Not strictly science fiction. Not strictly not. About working in quality assurance for GPS tracking and vehicle monitoring units for retrofitting buses for smart cities. There is something stylistically clever about this story, something which becomes obvious early on in the story, as do the reasons for it. That leads to a choice, for the reader, about how they should read, and if they should read at all. However, part of its cleverness is that it resists being admired as clever, and part of what makes the choice difficult is that it's impossible to think of it as important. On Medium.com.


Maughan, Tim. 'Zero Hours'

Tim Maughan, "Zero Hours" (2013). A short, sharp shock about the interface of emerging technologies and low skilled labour (or supposedly low skilled labour, perhaps).

Compare John Maynard Keynes's prediction: "for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well."

Instead, hello gig economy, hello extreme precarity, and hello cognitive capitalism, which "no longer consists, as in the Fordist time, of investment in constant and variable capital (wage), but rather of investment in apparatuses of producing and capturing value produced outside directly productive processes" (Marazzi 2010: p.55). "Zero Hours" is online at Medium.com.

Also see "Four Days of Christmas" at Motherboard.


Mitchison, Naomi. Not By Bread Alone

Naomi Mitchison, Not By Bread Alone (1983). Mitchison's entry in SFE. Review by Kate Macdonald.

Moon, Elizabeth. Once A Hero

Elizabeth Moon, Once A Hero (1997). Entry in ISFDB. Elizabeth Moon's entry in SFE.

Review by Kate Macdonald.

McDuck, Scrooge.

Duck Tales. Gazillionaire Scrooge McDuck is a nexus of proverbs: not only a faintly racist caricature -- the miserly Scot who cannot bear to part with the tiniest fraction of his wealth -- he also takes to the practice of accumulative brutality like a duck to water, literally paddling around in his gold, which he keeps in an enormous vault resembling a water tower. The hard coins which by rights should brain Scrooge instead flow from his feathers like water off a duck's back. So there's a utopianism here: money is stripped of its exchange function (he wouldnae spend it), and reduced to use value of a peculiarly sensuous and primal sort, a pool of instinctive pleasure which perhaps existed even in the womb (though Scrooge, of course, hatched). Scrooge McDuck negates money by wanting it only as itself, yet crucially, preserving its essential character as that which flows; whereas when nemesis Flintheart Glomgold finally (and temporarily, thanks to the gang) gets his greedy wings on Scrooge's riches, he fails to replicate Scooge's customary high-dive. The hoard, as if knowing its master, acts as a solid and rejects the interloper duck.

In connection with flow it's also worth thinking about proto-Smithian images of economic concordia discors, in particular the notion that misers and their characteristically profligate sons inadvertently collaborate to irrigate even the most out-of-the-way nooks and crannies (the burst-out effect, rather than today's more modest trickle-down effect).

There is far too much to really unpack here: even the name Scrooge McDuck inevitably recalls both the political economies of Smith and Hume, and Charles Dickens' passive aggressive sparring with Malthusianism; there is the connection with dragons' heaps of gold (the word drake can mean both dragon and duck); plus there are links among (a) the homogenising "duckface" we in the West characteristically adopt in any photograph, (b) the head of the sovereign stamped on coinage, (c) the role of slavery and virtual death in the primal origins of money, in particular the transition of what David Graeber calls "human economies" into commercial economies, which establishes humans as quantifiable, calculable and commensurable vectors, and (d) Scrooge's beak as the myth of the inexpressive "wedge" visage capable of supernatural entry into a submerged realm of merged exchange and use values. We can leave it for now but not forever.

Nagata, Linda. The Red: First Light

Linda Nagata, The Red: First Light (2013). Military sf. The Red itself is interestingly placed: in some ways it's an allegory for capital (and the cunning of capital), and in some ways it is an extrapolation of specific recent developments in capital's activities (algorithmic marketing, basically). Nagata's Vast is also notable from an economic perspective, though in an indirect way, in its representation of several interacting self-organizing systems, which entangle and qualitatively transform in interesting ways.


Newman, Peter. The Vagrant

Peter Newman's dark science fantasy The Vagrant (2015) takes place in a sort of war-torn, post-apocalyptic dystopia. A development economist might say: there is no banking infrastructure, governance structures are weak, and life is corrupted by demon magic.

So it is the kind of setting where you would not be surprised to find the typical crapsack economics of scavenging and primitive accumulation, and a "reversion to barter" (about this phrase, and about some common misconceptions around barter, see David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years).

That is more-or-less what we get, but there is some intriguing nuance. First, bodies (and selves) are fairly permeable and porous in the world of The Vagrant, so there is a sense that words like "scavenging / looting" and "recycling / reusing / repurposing / upcycling" don't quite capture the micro, macro, and necroeconomics of it all:
Stick-like people and bloated flies gather in the twilight, both drawn to the still warm corpse of the Dogspawn. By morning they have picked the bones clean. By afternoon half of the people have died, their stomachs unable to accept the rich meat. By evening their skeletons are bartered over by Necrotraders. 
In New Horizon nothing is wasted.
Second there is apparently, on a literal level, a coin money economy functioning alongside ad hoc spot trades and what-have-you. The representation of this money is quite intriguing. People always seem at least a little amazed, and maybe even a bit mesmerized, when the Vagrant brandishes his coinage. Psychologically speaking, perhaps that's just because: what's this ragtag hobo doing flashing that kind of cash?

But it's also a little more numinous than that. The coins have the depth of Tolkienian artefacts, fragments from a lost epoch. It is almost as if, instead of the passage of time sapping the coins of their purchasing power as we'd expect -- you try paying for your Wispa in Nisa with a Roman antoninianus coin, it is hard -- the longevity of this medium-of-exchange is testament to the cunning and wisdom of their artificers.

Ancient forces stir, ancient presences awake. It is almost as if each coin emanates a little enchanted bubble of civil society and a liberal social order, sustaining itself against reason within the brutal Hobbesian state of nature:
The Hammer leans over him. ‘More?’
He nods.
The coin dances three times, then stops.
The Hammer’s small eyes narrow. ‘More?’
He beckons her closer. She comes.
He points to her coin. Puzzled, she lifts her hand to him, open, disc shining on her outstretched fingers. He nods and taps his own coin against it.
Reunited, the silver sisters sing. The duet haunts the ears, stirring regrets and things lost.
When it ends the Vagrant puts his coin into her other hand.
Her eyes glisten, water growing at their edges. ‘Mine?’
The Vagrant nods.
Perhaps it's also worth briefly noting the most distinctive thing about The Vagrant: it doesn't really give us a lone badass and his entourage, or a party of badasses, so much as a badass nuclear family. Of course the hard military power and the economic power are concentrated in the Vagrant himself, but the baby and the goat -- and Harm and (mild spoiler!) the Hammer -- exercise significant agency whenever they're present.

And just because I mentioned Tolkien: might it be interesting to think about the relationship of the baby figure and the figure of Bilbo Baggins? Bilbo is in part a surrogate for a young reader of The Hobbit, rosy-cheeked and beardless among the oppressively bearded endeavours of the adult world. Bilbo is also someone who is rather unaccountably allowed to participate in a dangerous and crucial and highly technical project, and discovers to their delight that they're more than able to prove their worth. There is usually a smug elusiveness about what makes hobbits so important, which reminds me more than a little of the smug elusiveness about the value added by the "enterprise" factor of production, a value which is significant enough that a top CEO totally deserves 200 times the salary of a machinist. We could think of Bilbo, perhaps, as the young nephew of Gandalf the CEO -- or, more subtly, as someone who is pliable to the interests of capital, whatever the specifics of their sociological class background -- whom the dwarves have to be nice to ("yes yes, you're uh, the Ringbearer ... no we totally can't see you at all, sir ... I mean Bilbo. Sir") because he'll be their boss one day.

And of course, he'll get to write the history of it. (I can just see There And Back Again on the rack in the airport next to The 10% Adventurer: How to Fulfill the Ancient Legends WITHOUT Quitting Your Day Job! or The Seven Dwarves of Highly Effective People or the latest in NLP from Ed Wormtongue or whatever).

Of course, that's probably putting it a bit strongly. But it is nice for a change to see a kid in a tale of high adventure who is just pretty much in practical terms a hassle and a risk.

One more snippet:
The Vagrant stares at the coins in his hand, each with the power to buy and sell life. Only five remain now. They have been spent on necessities such as food and medicine as well as indulgences, acts of charity that do little to pay off the debt of conscience. 
The last few coins have bought a boy’s freedom, a goat and a modicum of privacy for the journey. Of the three, only the goat can be classed as a necessity.

Novik, Naomi. Uprooted

Naomi Novik, Uprooted (2015).

A fiercely elegant high fantasy. Faintly economic themes include magic as a precious commodity, and benign and malign modes of being disheveled, disarrayed, compromised or corrupt. A snippet:
One of the soldiers was a boy my own age, industriously sharpening pike-heads one by one with a stone, skillfully: six strokes for each one and done as quick as the two men putting them along the wall could come back for them. He must have put himself to it, to learn how to do it so well. He didn’t look sullen or unhappy. He’d chosen to go for a soldier. Maybe he had a story that began that way: a poor widowed mother at home and three young sisters to feed, and a girl from down the lane who smiled at him over the fence as she drove her father’s herd out into the meadows every morning. So he’d given his mother his signing-money and gone to make his fortune. He worked hard; he meant to be a corporal soon, and after that a sergeant: he’d go home then in his fine uniform, and put silver in his mother’s hands, and ask the smiling girl to marry him.
     Or maybe he’d lose a leg, and go home sorrowful and bitter to find her married to a man who could farm; or maybe he’d take to drink to forget that he’d killed men in trying to make himself rich. That was a story, too; they all had stories. They had mothers or fathers, sisters or lovers. They weren’t alone in the world, mattering to no one but themselves. It seemed utterly wrong to treat them like pennies in a purse. I wanted to go and speak to that boy, to ask him his name, to find out what his story really was. But that would have been dishonest, a sop to my own feelings. I felt the soldiers understood perfectly well that we were making sums out of them—this many safe to spend, this number too high, as if each one wasn’t a whole man.
     Sarkan snorted. “What good would it do them for you to roam around asking them questions, so you know that one’s from Debna, and this one’s father is a tailor, and the other one has three children at home? They’re better served by your building walls to keep Marek’s soldiers from killing them in the morning.”
     “They’d be better served by Marek not trying in the first place,” I said, impatient with him for refusing to understand. The only way we could make Marek bargain was to make the walls too costly to breach, so he wouldn’t want to pay. But it still made me angry, at him, at the baron, at Sarkan, at myself.
     “Have you got any family left?” I asked him abruptly.

Pratchett, Terry. Making Money

Terry Pratchett, Making Money (2007). 2007, you'll notice. Not 2009. Pratchett has really done his research, and in the course of a bristling, highly readable comic fantasy, he does a pretty good job of lampooning the commodity theory of money, especially in its more goldbuggish incarnations.

In part, Making Money is inspired by the founding of the Bank of England (though the differences are instructive). It's a bit unfortunate that Pratchett so cozily aligns the interests of state and the commoners against the interests of the parasitic aristos. That means that his rival understanding of what money is -- not a commodity, but a network of credit, backed by state power -- isn't really tested as thoroughly as it should be. But the bulk of the novel is amusing and educational, and by the end, things get more weird in a magical kind of way, until finally there's a really interesting thought experiment about value as it relates to banks, money, automation, "intrinsically" precious materials and (especially) labour. I've written a fair bit about this book, which will see light of day eventually.


Pratchett, Terry. Thud!

Terry Pratchett, Thud! (2005)

Notable in particular for its brief satirical treatment of derivatives markets. The following somewhat-related post originally appeared on Aargh.

One of the things Terry Pratchett's City Watch series does is celebrate the keeping of the peace, and the rule of law. It therefore also finds itself celebrating the police.

1) The keeping of the peace and the rule of law are not to be sniffed at. Getting inside the head of Sam Vimes (Vimes is brave; Vimes is obstinate; Vimes is put-upon; Vimes is grouchy and ill-tempered in a way which is really a kind of grim good humour; posh people make Vimes's skin crawl; Vimes is a hugely reluctant social climber; Vimes struggles with his old-fashioned bigotry and sexism; Vimes doesn't have to be an idealist or a realist because he's just always a bit knurd; on some level Vimes is probably a bit overwrought that he has never quite had to sacrifice his life for the greater good; Vimes is prone to inner conflicts between an id-like "Beast" and a superego-like "Watchman"; Vimes is exactly the person you want with you in a tight corner; Vimes is (sorry) bae) is an excellent way not to sniff at them.

2) Nor should we forget the angle at which Pratchett first came in on the City Watch, imparting a general orientation to everything which followed. In the rhetoric of TV Tropes, these police started out as genre-savvy mooks (or redshirts, perhaps: and cf. e.g. John Scalzi's Redshirts, and the massacred henchmen of Austin Powers).

That is: one of the running themes of Guards! Guards! is the way in which stories treat certain minor characters as disposable, just to show off the swordplay and other heroic antics of the major characters. But here are characters who don't feel "minor" and who refuse to be disposable.

I really like, by the way, guessing at the shifting nuance of these translations of that excellent title. Look especially at the Italian, the Norwegian/Swedish, and at the Spanish:

Стражите! Стражите! (Bulgarian)
Stráže! Stráže! (Czech)
Wacht! Wacht! (Dutch)
Vahid! Vahid! (Estonian)
Vartijat, hoi! (Finnish)
Au Guet ! (French)
Wachen! Wachen! (German)
שומרים! שומרים! (Shomrim! Shomrim!) (Hebrew)
Őrség! Őrség! (Hungarian)
A me le guardie! (Italian)
I lovens navn! (In the name of the law) (Norwegian)
Straż! Straż! (Polish)
Guardas! Guardas! (Portuguese - Brazil)
Gărzi! Gărzi! (Romanian)
Стража! Стража! (Russian)
Straža! Straža! (Serbian)
¡Guardias! ¿Guardias? (Spanish)
I lagens namn (In the name of the law) (Swedish)
來人啊! (繁體中文)

3) Nor should we forget that what is fantastical about the City Watch isn't exactly that it includes dwarves and werewolves and vampires and trolls and so on in its ranks -- Captain Carrot Ironfoundersson, Captain Angua von Überwald, Lance-Constable Salacia "Sally" von Humpeding, Sergeant Detritus, Sergeant Fred Colon, Corporal Nobby Nobbs, Sergeant Cheery Littlebottom, Constable Reginald Shoe, Inspector A. E. Pessimal, Constable Igor et al., hi guys <3 -- which is really less extraordinary than the idea that the Watch is roughly representative, in many different ways (see note), of the population it polices.

The Watch is not an elite fraternity of mostly financially flourishing white men, whose individual kindnesses and cruelties mostly cancel out (as in the expression "oh, it'll all come out in the Watch"), leaving only their Job, and who will, if you try too energetically to advance a Vimesian agenda of peace, order, pragmatism, mild cosmopolitanism and substantive legal equality, come up to you and wound you, because that's their Job. Guard labour! Guard labour! In other words, there is an element of utopianism to the Watch -- or at least of a weirdly inverted satire -- since half the time it is the Watch's virtues, not its vices, that are grotesquely amplified and enlarged compared with Roundworld correlates.

4) But. Although the Watch sequence is interested in exploring the space between the voice that shouts "Guards! Guards!" and the voice that shouts "Police! Police!", it frequently finds that space to be unexpectedly cramped.

I think there is an intermittent discomfort with the whole idea of taking a police perspective in the first place, a restlessness which finds expression in many ways. The novel Night Watch is perhaps one big example, in which a time travel conceit lets Pratchett just park that liberal progress shtick, and stick his copper on top of a barricade in pitched battle against a repressive state.

But I also just noticed a small example in Thud!, which was really all I want to point out here. "Pig" is, of course, a way of referring to a police officer when you don't want to hear any excuses. It's a way of saying, "Because all humans, despite and because of our sublime diversity, are in some fundamental and important sense equal, the only truly inhuman thing anyone can do is a Job which wages endless war on that equality." It's a way of saying, "Become human again." It's a way of saying, "Quit."

It can be a way of saying, "Die," although this can also depend on things like vegetarianism.

In Thud! Vimes is, in two separate ways, associated with not the pig, but with the ambivalent figure of the pig-not-pig. A kind of Schrödinger's Pig.

The first is, of course, the "BLT" sandwiches with which Vimes hopes to evade Lady Sybil's health regime, and which contain either superabundant bacon and negligible garnish, or jungles of lettuce and tomato and next-to-zero bacon.

The second has a direct link with finance. It sees Vimes encircled by a spectres of frozen, temporally inverted pig meat. Vimes visits the Pork Futures Warehouse:
The Pork Futures Warehouse was one of those things, the sort that you get in a city that has lived with magic for too long. The occult reasoning, if such it could be called, was this: pork was an important commodity in the city. Future pork, possibly even pork as yet unborn, was routinely traded by the merchants. Therefore, it had to exist somewhere. And the Pork Futures Warehouse came into existence, icy cold within as the pork drifted backwards in time.
*   *   *

Note: Btw & fwiw: there's a fairly strong sociologically working class vibe in Vimes's Watch. How do their finances stack up? Setting aside the fact that the Discworld hasn't been pedantically worldbuilt in advance, and various mentions of salaries and prices don't always seem to quite fit together: if a Watchman gets $30 a month, then using the 50c-per-day rate for stable hands mentioned in The Truth as an analogue for the UK minimum wage, that would give us a back-of-the-envelope Watchman's salary of around £26,000, very close to the actual starting police officer salary in my part of Roundworld (although not counting overtime bonuses, which can be enormous: ultimately the Job is compensated at more-or-less the same level as dentists, accountants, and civil engineers, and a bit below architects, lawyers, and the lower tiers of finance professionals). 


Pohl, Frederik. 'The Midas Plague'

Frederik Pohl, "The Midas Plague" (1954). Online. A topsy-turvy world satire with a lot of very intriguing material in it. A great story for thinking about the fact that scarce, as a technical term of economics, is not the same as limited. Rather, scarce means limited in relation to demand (or desire), and "The Midas Plague" plays with the idea of of manipulating not only the production of resources, but the demand for them (via those eleven psychologists, and of course the bit at the end). Pohl doesn't r-e-a-l-l-y rationalize the initial conceit very rigorously, but perhaps in 2016, with the benefit of CAP surplus foodscapes, with the New Public Management of the 1980s onward and the attendant financialization (and therefore consumer-ification) of public and civic life, the case might be easier to make. Also see "The Waging of the Peace" (1959).

Mild spoiler: in the future, the rich have the luxury of living modest lifestyles, while the "poor" have to constantly consume.


Raven, Paul Graham. 'Los Piratas del Mar de Plastico (The Pirates of the Plastic Sea)'

Paul Graham Raven, "Los Piratas del Mar de Plastico (The Pirates of the Plastic Sea)"  (2014). Collected in Twelve Tomorrows (2014), ed. Bruce Sterling, it bears comparison with another story in the same volume, Cory Doctorow's "Petard: A Tale of Just Desserts."

Two tales, very different in flavour and mood, but thematically complementary. Both explore the tensions and contradictions between what you could call capitalist ideology and entrepreneurial ideology (or "entrepreneurial-engineering stance," perhaps); both ferociously snuffle at the blurred line between market forces and the forces which shape markets (& here's PGR on infrastructure fiction).

Both stories are also interested in the way dynamics which pop up with an anti-capitalist belligerence, or at a tangent to capitalism, can get recuperated by capital. Including, perhaps, the appropriation of the ideology of "disrupting" itself: the last thing you'd expect of Doctorow's and Raven's arch market-disruptors Sergey and Niceday is any pinko sass.

Doctorow's title invites us to think of his Sergey as an extrapolation of the same logic embodied by his hero Lukasz; petard is a reference to the expression "hoisted on your own petard" (it's from Hamlet: "For tis the sport to haue the enginer / Hoist with his owne petar"), so there's a sense of Lukasz, in many ways a classic Doctorowian activist everyhacker, getting beaten at his own game, or gulping down a taste of his own medicine. (More specifically, the idiom is about being blown up by your own grenade. So perhaps it's a story about knowing just the right moment to let go of something?)

Both Doctorow's and Raven's story also contains more-or-less the same line, as nemesis (Sergey / Cedric) offers protagonist (Luckasz / Hope) the opportunity to join a thrilling and intellectually fulfilling, but morally dubious cutting-edge economic enterprise.

That line is: "I'll think about it."


Robinson, Kim Stanley. Red Mars

Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars (1993). Worthy, solid, hard sf-ish epic which speaks very directly to speculative fiction's utopian tradition. Reasonably good at avoiding the worst pitfalls of hard sf by making time for social science and political theory, and by creating dialogues and controversies that aren't decisively settled one way or the other. It edges on cringe-worthy ethnic caricature, though at least it has an inclusive and cosmopolitan instinct. Perhaps I need to think about that a bit more.

One particularly interesting section, as regards economics, is Arkady's conversation with Boon in Part 5, Chapter 8: "So far we have not been living in a money economy, that’s the way scientific stations are. It’s like winning a prize that frees you from the economic wheel." Arkady imagines the colonists as "scientist primitives" who have carved out an island utopia which appears free from the workings of global (stellar) capitalism, but is not really. Another is Marina and Vlad's eco-economics in Part 5, Chapter 6: "Everyone should make their living, so to speak, based on a calculation of their real contribution to the human ecology." As an attempt to rationalize economic value, Marina and Vlad's calorie-based proposals could probably stand to learn from historical experiments with time-based currencies (e.g. LETS), as well as the late 19Cth subjectivist critique (Menger et al.) of labor theories of value and cost-of-production theories of value. Marina and Vlad also propose a version of the Bullshit Jobs thesis (cf. e.g. Adams, Bellamy, Morris), that "there are whole categories of parasitical jobs that add nothing to the system by an ecologic accounting." But it is probably a good rule of thumb to think of economics as a "deformed offshoot" of ecology that is "like astrology." Marina and Vlad's eco-economics is soon compared with -- though it surely very different from -- the Sufis' aspiration for a "reverent economics" inspired by gift exchange. "We have studied the old cultures, before your global market netted everything, and in those ages there existed many different forms of exchange. Some of them were based on the giving of gifts." Mars's awkward and often ambiguous status at the edge of the Terran economy may offer some interesting comparisons, perhaps, with Charles Stross's Neptune's Brood. I am interested to see what happens in the next two books, and suspect the economics of longevity treatment may play a bit of a role?

Red Mars, by the way, is another of those books that actually does many of the things science fiction is assumed as a matter of critical cliche to do: it imagines the future, it reasons extrapolatively, it respects science but also wiggles it a bit, it inspires, it cautions, it tries to invoke sensawunda. It does these things in a way which feels fairly straightforward, almost prosaically literal, if you have been spending your time trying to read, oh I don't know, Dune or Trouble on Triton or Neuromancer or Children of Men or The Hunger Games or Jack Glass or something through that lens. You can kind of make it work, and actually using slightly the wrong tool turns out to be pretty damn fruitful once you give it some oomph ... but then when you turn to Red Mars and the critical apparatus and the text slot together so neatly, you feel a bit nonplussed.

Roberts, Adam. New Model Army

See the Lara Buckerton review of this book, along with Antoine Bousquet's The Scientific Way of Warfare. Originally in Vector.

Roberts, Adam. Stone

Adam Roberts, Stone (2002). The protagonist of Stone, on a visit to the world Rain, discovers a currency of leaves. The unspoken joke is that on Rain, money does grow on trees! Trees and their leaves are also abundant: a local explains that because of this shrewd choice of currency, everyone on Rain is rich! But the Rain-dwellers do take their currency very seriously: when the protagonist finds themself curiously leaf-bereft, they really cannot buy anything. The episode has a satirical, proto-sf "traveler's tale" type feel to it. But at the same time, it feels possible to reconstruct a kind of economic system that makes almost perfect sense.

Rain is part of a broadly post-scarcity and utopian civilization. In this civilization, the puzzles of resource allocation are probably not the big ones we're used to nowadays -- posers like, "healthcare or nuclear deterrents?" -- but rather, masses and masses of infinitesimal puzzles. They are infinitesimal puzzles about the most efficient and fair way to enjoy peace and luxury together which, a bit like Stone's ubiquitous swarming nanotech, might accumulate into something fairly formidable. On a world where there's always enough to go around, should it go around clockwise or what? (You could call it "lowered stakes scarcity," or "estranged scarcity" or something).

Gathering leaves introduces a modicum of inconvenience, and you might plan your activities between bouts of leaf-gathering. Leaf currency, we may imagine, allows the Rain-dwellers to sustain a smidge of the quantifying and calculative rationality of homo economicus. Thrift is comprehensible to them. In the rainy climate, leaves probably turn to soggy sludge pretty quickly, so there's also a kind of Gesellian Freigeld aspect to their leaf currency -- a dampening of liquidity preference, if you will -- so nobody would bother hoarding leaves. And nobody bothers trying to lend leaves at interest, or allows themselves to be exploited to get some leaves. They just go get some leaves.  Nobody's opinions are given more weight just because they have a lot of leaves. Leaf-getting does not lend itself to Sisyphean graft nor entrepreneurial genius. If somebody has a lot of leaves, they're just somebody who has gone and got lots of leaves.

For other money trees, see Nalo Hopkinson, Clifford D. Simak, and Douglas Adams. Adams's proto-humans are strict quantity theorists with a match and a mission to control the money supply. That's what's clever about Rain, you see. It's always raining.


Roddenberry, Gene. Star Trek

Gene Roddenberry's Star TrekWhat's really fascinating about the economics of Star Trek is the inconsistency. The official line is that the Federation is post-money, and there are hints (replicators etc.) that it is more-or-less post-scarcity too.

Nevertheless, we also get references to rents, remittances, stakes, compensation and even the compulsory face of future finance, the credit. The equivocation is neatly captured in TOS Episode "The Apple," when Kirk snaps at Spock (and not for the first time I bet), "Do you know how much Starfleet has invested in you?" Spock responds something like, "Twenty-two thousand, two hun--" and is rather tellingly interrupted before he can finish, "--dred and forty three clams and eighty seven point one four pence, Captain. Why, what's up?" It's a discrepancy can be reconciled in various ways, which I hope to look at in some detail elsewhere.

I think the post-scarcity of Star Trek is worth comparing to that of Iain M. Banks's Culture, with which it has similarities.

There has been a fair bit written about Star Trek economics, most notably Manu Saadia's Trekonomics:

Trekonomics from Inkshares on Vimeo.

Russell, Eric Frank. And Then There Were None.

Erik Frank Russell, 'And Then There Were None' (1953). Some snippets:

“‘Obligation. Why use a long word when a short one is plenty good enough? An obligation is an ob. I shift it this way: Seth Warburton, next door but one, has got half a dozen of my obs saddled on him. So I get rid of mine to you and relieve him of one of his to me by sending you around for a meal.’ He scribbled briefly on a slip of paper. ‘Give him this.’”


 “‘No.’ Firmly she pushed the pineapple back at him. ‘If I ate my way through that I’d be saddled with an ob.’ ‘So what?’ ‘I don’t let strangers dump obs on me.’”